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Room for Everyone at the Table: An Israeli Secular Shabbat Dinner Experience

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

Experience Reflection by Elysia Martin

Trips to Israel usually include all of the essentials, like kayaking in the Jordan River, hiking Masada, exploring Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, staying with Bedouins in the Negev, and riding camels. But when was the last time you had dinner with strangers?

All I knew as my friends and I hopped in a cab was that we were being hosted by a few Israelis for a secular Shabbat dinner. Two weeks before, I sat in the living room of an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem and welcomed in Shabbat with traditions untouched by time, but this night was entirely different.

The apartment was so fashionable, it was like something out of a movie. The loft was on the 16th floor, and the view was something to behold. All of the lights shone brightly through the low-lying clouds that congregated near the Mediterranean shore. The music and the breeze from the patio intermingled with the street noise below, creating a symphony of sound unable to be reproduced in any other place but here–in Tel-Aviv.

The whole evening was arranged through a local Israeli business called Betzavta, which means “together” in Hebrew. Travelers can book a host in the Tel-Aviv area and enjoy dinner with locals for a true taste of Israeli cuisine and culture. That night we didn’t just have dinner with strangers, we had dinner with strangers who became our friends.

Our hosts for the evening were two couples and one of their sisters–all secular Jews. We sat around a large table, drank wine, and ate a meal as colorful as the personalities around us. At one end of the table sat a former IDF soldier named Pavo, who dreamed of visiting Texas. He was joined by his girlfriend, Elina, a famous jewelry designer, and her sister Avital. Seated across from me was an anti-war 28-year-old named Ilana and her boyfriend. I sat back and marveled at the range of ideas represented at this table. This may not have been a religious experience in the traditional sense, but it was just as Jewish as our Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Between bites and outbursts of laughter, I savored every moment of this night. We asked our hosts if they had Shabbat like this every Friday. “Oh, no! Not like this!” one of them replied, laughing.

The food was every color of the rainbow–some of the most delicious cuisine I have ever had–and it kept coming. Even when I thought it was over,  there was more to follow–much like my constant discovery of the wonders of Israel. The point at which I thought I had seen it all, another breathtaking facet of the Jewish state revealed itself. On this night, I was blown away by the hospitality and kindness of my hosts–perfect strangers from the other side of the world, with whom I had more in common than I ever thought possible.

Over the course of the meal, Pavo asked us our favorite moments in Israel thus far. If I had to answer this question now, it would be this night. After we all shared our thoughts, my friends and I asked our hosts what they would like us, as Americans, to know about Israel. Thankful for a moment that this was a secular Shabbat, I pulled out my phone and pressed the record button. The things I learned in the next couple of hours could never come from a textbook or a classroom–I experienced them. This is only a snapshot of the entire conversation:

Pavo was quick to speak up. “Try to purchase new goggles,” he began, “because you’re viewing this conflict with Western goggles and you’ve got all this s*** wrong… You’re viewing from Western points of view and those points of view don’t work in the Middle East… Go back a few decades and ask yourself how Jordan was created. What is Jordan? What is Syria? What is Libya? All of the countries that were created in the Sykes-Picot… That’s what Britain and France chose for those people… You need to go back and see where those conflicts are coming from… Go back and ask yourself how those countries were created… And from that, you can deduce what their point of view on Israel is.”

He continued, “ We [Israelis] live our lives to make ourselves better and not make someone else’s life worse. I was a soldier in the West Bank. I know what people are doing there, and 99.9% of the time they’re doing the right thing. Even if you have to take one person of the family in an arrest you try to make it the most humane you can, but if that situation was reversed, it wouldn’t be humane. “Humane” is not part of their agenda. That’s it.”

We all listened so intently as if it were a historic moment. In my mind, it was.

As the figurative microphone passed around the table, Elina spoke up:  “Every time we are traveling and talking to locals, and we say we’re from Israel, we’re confused…people have such strong views on Israel–because of the media of course–so every time we travel we’re trying to tell them the truth, because they don’t know it. Everything they hear about Israel is like it’s this black hole that kills innocent people; it’s awful. It’s so not true…[Israel] is really wonderful! We have a lot of problems here, like everywhere, but we’re a very young country.”

Ilana was eager to share her opinion as well.  “I believe that in every nation, there are good people and bad people, “ she said. “I don’t think there are bad Arabs…when you do something bad to others, it’s because you are in a dark place, so I can understand the people in Gaza that are living in poverty…and the government is taking all the money that the world is giving to them. They [use] it for terror. I don’t believe in countries, I believe in people. I hope that people outside see that there are good Jews [who] don’t conquer, [who] believe in a better world, [and] that we can live together in peace and coexist…I want to spread the word that it is fun here in Israel and we are good people…we want to coexist with the Arabs, but we don’t always have partners in that idea.”

It was almost 1:00 am when we said our goodbyes. My friends and I left with full stomachs, new friends, and a firsthand experience of the beauty of Israel and its people. What our hosts brought to the table was much more than hummus and challah; it was a microcosm of Israeli politics. Just as Jewish identity is complex, so too is the makeup of Israeli society. It is far from uniform, but that’s the wonder of it all.

Seated at our table was a range of ideas, personalities,  and political beliefs. In the five hours I sat with my new friends, I witnessed the vitality of the Jewish state–one that is colorful and diverse–where there is room for everyone at the table.

Elysia Martin

Elysia Martin is a student at American University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Jewish Studies. She formerly interned in the photo archives of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has worked as a campus intern for The David Project, and was a research associate at Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel think tank, where her article “The Hidden Agenda of the BDS Movement” was published. Elysia received a grant in 2016 to conduct original research on Jewish converts to Christianity during the Holocaust and was also a part of the 2016 Bonhoeffer Fellowship class for Christians United for Israel. She is currently president of CUFI at AU. When she’s not watching Hallmark movies or talking about how much she loves Texas, she can be found perusing old archives around D.C.

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